Trial of the Gods: Kota Ibushi Interviewed 【WK15】

Kota Ibushi talks a potential pair of main events at Wrestle Kingdom 15

When Kota Ibushi lost his right to challenge briefcase in controversial form to Jay White at Power Struggle this November, it appeared as if he no longer had a route to the Tokyo Dome. After a landmark back to back G1 Climax win, and after weeks of talk that he would become God with a capital G through the tournament, all Ibushi’s plans seemed undone. Yet at Tetsuya Naito’s behest, he now gets one more chance, and in the main event of night one at Wrestle Kingdom, an epic contender with a career rival. 

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I need to draw on the old Kota Ibushi

–The day is finally almost here. How are you feeling right now?

Ibushi: There’s not much that changes at this point in time, so right now I’m very focused on review. My past self, my past matches, that kind of thing.

–You said on Twitter that you’ve cut a lot of things over the course of your career. You said ‘I never pick up something that’s been thrown away, but there’s some things I might bring back’. Was that a result of your studies?

Ibushi: Yes. I think the last two or three years have seen my style really solidify, and that’s a good thing in many respects, but if you stop doing something it very quickly falls out of practice and leads to you not being able to do it again. But I will say, whether it goes for moves, or as a general rule in life, once something’s thrown away, I never pick it up again. Same goes with something I might give someone, or lending something; I’ve always lent people things feeling in my heart that they’ll never come back.

–Like doing spring cleaning. The Kondo of wrestling (laughs)

Ibushi: Well, throwing something away, or making cuts, it’s all in the interest of progress. To advance myself, to evolve and grow, I’ve made the decision to throw things away. But something like the Phoenix Splash, I haven’t thrown that away, just put it to one side. Then when I needed a new move to beat a certain someone, I started using Kamigoye, right? Throwing old things out makes way for the new, I really feel. And that process has led to my style solidifying these last few years.

–So with that in mind, what do you mean by ‘bringing things back’?

Ibushi: I think here that I need to draw on the old Kota Ibushi. I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to bring more of the junior heavyweight style I had and merge it with this heavyweight Ibushi. I’ve even thought about those days playing around with wrestling moves on the beach as a kid! I called some old friends from middle school lately, even. 

–From play fights as a schoolkid?

Ibushi: Yeah! And we talked about what kinds of things we did, I did back then. And I’m not saying I’ll be doing X,Y,Z back, but I’ve used that as a basis to work on stuff from those days to bring back the wrestler I used to be. That’s the kind of training I’ve been doing lately. 

I think he actually likes me deep down

–Obviously you’re taking this huge stage and the huge double title match on January 4 very seriously.

Ibushi: It’s obviously a special pair of events, and with Tetsuya Naito on January 4, that’s a special opponent.

–You and Naito have very similar ways of thinking. I remember interviewing Naito last year, and he said that wrestling you gave him flashbacks to messing around in school gyms. 

Ibushi: He’s absolutely right, I really feel the same. I think that’s probably because of coming up at the same time, being the same age, being the same generation of fan as well, but that’s absolutely the way I feel in the ring with him, and I think you’ll see that at the Tokyo Dome as well.

–You’re from Kagoshima and he’s from Tokyo, but you’ve had very similar experiences when it comes to discovering wrestling and devoting your life to it.

Ibushi: It all comes down to that getting in our blood as kids. As soon as it got into our systems, we had to get out and do it.

–Do you think some of that relationship comes from you not going through the NJPW system? You never had that hierarchy within the promotion to deal with so you were always on completely even footing in a sense.

Ibushi: Maybe… In all honesty, I don’t really care about what Naito thinks (laughs). I think if we had both come through the same system, or if we were different ages, maybe that would change the way I thought, or talked, but that isn’t a factor.

–And that’s why you can have the matches you do. But you did have a much more, ‘traditional’ relationship, shall we say.

Ibushi: ‘Traditional’, hmm… I don’t really know why things turned out the way they did, but… Naito often says that he hates me as a human being, but he loves the wrestler Kota Ibushi, right? I think deep down, he likes me as a human being as well.

He couldn’t look me in the eye

–When did you two first meet?

Ibushi: Let’s see… I got my start a little earlier than he did; I debuted in 2004, and he joined NJPW in 2006. I was making my NJPW debut just as he had returned from excursion. 

–2009 Best of the Super Jr.?

Ibushi: That sounds about right, yeah.

–Naito said he didn’t really remember much of that first meeting, but do you?

Ibushi: If I remember right, we didn’t do much but say hello and introduce ourselves, but I remember him not being able to quite look me in the eye. I thought right at that point that he felt I was a bit of a rival.

–There was a bit of antagonism there?

Ibushi: Right, I definitely felt he was giving off some wary vibes.

–After that you connected through the famous ‘1982 Club’, and met a lot within and outside NJPW. You seemed to get along just fine, with no sense of that hierarchy you get in Japanese wrestling, but to here him tell it, you were perhaps a little aloof toward him. 

Ibushi: That might be fair! I picked on him from time to time. Then we did that TV show, with him driving…

–For a TV show you both went to the Fuji-Q Highland theme park together.

Ibushi: We rode the roller coasters together. But I think around then I was a bit of a pain in the ass. I ribbed him quite a bit.

–Naito was very much elevated and in the spotlight at the time, but he hadn’t really found his confidence. At the same time, you were on the rise, and more highly thought of. It created a very interesting dynamic.

Ibushi: I think then I was a junior, occasionally challenging heavyweights, and we didn’t really meet in the ring much. When we did start interacting in matches more was when I started to push his buttons.

–You first faced one another in the 2013 G1, and you came out with the win. Do you remember much of that match?

Ibushi: Like we said at the start, it felt like messing around at school. For sure. I was a little nervous though.

–You were still a junior at that standpoint, but did you feel then that you’d found a special opponent?

Ibushi: Oh yeah. I thought right there that we’d be doing this for a while to come.

If I don’t get that feeling of fun, I’ve already lost

–But then you took your different paths; Naito to LIJ and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship picture, yourself away from New Japan for a spell. How did you view Naito at that point in time?

Ibushi: When he won the title in spring of 2016 was when I was pretty burned out from wrestling. I was taking time away and didn’t want to even watch.

–You weren’t watching at all then?

Ibushi: Right, just as this new Tetsuya Naito was coming about.

–Naito has said that he felt you were above where he was before he started Los Ingobernables De japon, but that in the 2017 G1 your positions reversed. 

Ibushi: Ah, that match in the 2017 G1…

–Things got pretty dangerous in that match.

Ibushi: That was really pushing the playing around part hard. But I’d had a couple of years away, and had a bit of a blank when it came to wrestling in New japan while Naito had gone from strength to strength. I really felt that change in him.

–You certainly left your mark on him with your strikes in that match, and that top rope piledriver. But he had advanced, you think.

Ibushi: Perhaps, perhaps. I think the thing with me is, I always give all I have in the now to each match, but I also feel quite strongly that if I’m not having fun, then the fans won’t have fun either. That match was all about enjoying being in the ring as much as possible. I think if anything, that’s been missing a little with me lately, not having fun so much as…

–Perhaps comparing that match to you know, you have more focus, you’re more solid and a better all round athlete, but there’s a looseness, maybe a mischievousness that’s missing?

Ibushi: Yeah, I think that’s fair.

–But Naito is the best guy to bring that out of you.

Ibushi: He really is. This year we never really crossed paths, with us both being in different G1 blocks and everything. It’s been long enough that I wonder whether I can enjoy it as much as our other matches, but I do know that if I can, then that’s the key to me winning. If I don’t get that feeling of fun, then I know I’ve already lost. That’s the key to this match.

I wouldn’t wrestle that way with another opponent, and I don’t think he would either. 

–After December 23 in Korakuen, you said you ‘haven’t forgotten the battles we had’. It was quite an uncharacteristic line from you.

Ibushi: How many matches did we have last year again?

–In 2019? There was New Japan Cup, Madison Square Garden, and Dominion, so three times.

Ibushi: MSG was a big deal. To win the title there. I do remember feeling I wanted to win and defend it in Japan.

–Did losing the belt back to Naito in Osaka really affect you?

Ibushi: It did, but more than that was the journey that it put him on. I always thought it was weird he went from not wanting the IC title at all to pushing for a Double Championship. 

–There was a lot of discussion coming out of that Osaka Jo match. A lot of fans felt things got a little bit too dangerous…

Ibushi: I saw some of that online. But the thing is, that match came up as part of, on top of the relationship the two of us have. To comment something like that really makes light of what we do. We’re made of tougher stuff than that.

–The two of you can enter territory other pairings can’t.

Ibushi: Look, we did some pretty scary stuff, but the people saying what they did were taking us lightly, I think. Naito felt the same way, but that was a match that only the two of us could pull of together. I wouldn’t wrestle that way with a different opponent, and I don’t think he would either.

–So there’s king of a mutual understanding that the two of you will do moves to one another you would never do in any other scenario?

Ibushi: I think there’s some unspoken bond in there, yeah.

–This will be your first singles meeting since that match, so some 18 months. Add into that everything we’ve talked about, and it really seems like you plan to throw everything you have at Naito here.

Ibushi: Oh yeah, I think it’ll be a different kind of match to everything that we’ve had before.

–Different to Sapporo, different to MSG, different to Osaka.

Ibushi: Right. I don’t think it’ll be a continuation of what we’ve done. It’ll be a completely new kind of pro-wrestling. 

–You’re different people. This Kota Ibushi has won two G1s since, for one thing.

Ibushi: That experience completely changes you, I think. Going three finals in a row, two G1s in a row, there’s nothing tougher than that.

–And that experience, plus that mischievous child in you; it all adds up to a lot on January 4. 

Ibushi: And I’ll put it all out there on the fourth. After all, if I don’t win on night one, there is no night two for me.

I used to look up to the people on my team, now I’m being looked up to

–In December, you teamed with SHO through the Road to Tokyo Dome. Naito has mentioned a change in your demeanour through that match, that you were taking the lead in the team from the outset.

Ibushi: Well, I’m 17 years into this business at this point. More often than not, I’m teaming with people that are younger now, less experienced. I was teaming with Master Wato as well, and I know he’s finding his way. It was good to work with him, work on his kicks every night and teach him a few things. 

–And then SHO is a big fan of yours…

Ibushi: Ah, yeah he is, isn’t he…(laughs)I used to be the one looking up to the other people on my team, and now I’m being looked up to. That’s time and age I guess.

–You certainly don’t look like you age at all.

Ibushi: Well, I always go into life trying to keep a fresh outlook, go about things as if age doesn’t apply to me. But I’ve had a few reminders this year that I age like everyone else. 

–But that creates new possibilities of its own. You’ve expressed jealousy in the past about Tetsuya Naito having his own faction in LIJ; have you ever given thought to an Ibushi Army of sorts?

Ibushi: Hahaha! You know, I’d like to. But if I did, we’d have to do it right. It would have to be the best of the best on my team. You know, when I had the old Ibushi Pro-Wrestling Research Institute I did some recruiting at one point.

–Oh, I remember you talking about this. You wanted Olympians or something…

Ibushi: I wanted people who had been in the Olympics, people over seven foot tall, or guys under five foot who weighed more than 330lbs. Nobody applied…

–Those are quite… stringent requirements. 

Ibushi: That aside, I’ve learned I’m a pretty decent teacher. It’s something I enjoy as well. 

Whoever wins on the fourth will win on the fifth 

–We’ve strayed a little off topic, but to get back to the matter at hand. January 4 you face Tetsuya Naito, and if successful on January 5 it’s Jay White. You have your own past with jay White, including that controversial finish at Power Struggle.

Ibushi: It’s a strange situation. I still don’t accept what happened in Osaka. 

–That loss really sucked the air out of the building for a second, it was such a shock, but how did you feel in the moment?

Ibushi: At first it was shock. Like ‘I really lost, it really happened…’ and then I got to the back and saw the video. He had his feet on the ropes. That’s illegal. Either you take that into account and restart the match, or if that result has to stand then I should have had a direct rematch with that case on the line. I have no issue with facing Jay White. But I have a huge issue with the way he won, and I wanted to face Naito having had a proper match within the rules against Jay.

–I see.

Ibushi: So I think the way to do it would have been to have had me face Jay White for the case on January 4, and then whoever wins would face Naito on January 5. The opposite of this scenario. But I guess I don’t have a say. 

–Jay really capitalized on the situation, and moved as fast as he could.

Ibushi: Which makes me wonder, why did Naito let that happen? As the double champion he should hold more sway than anybody. Maybe it’s a champion’s confidence that made him do what he did, but in the end, I’m happy to take my chance. As G1 winner, I think I deserve that.

–But does the way you got that chance make you feel at all conflicted?

Ibushi: It’s complicated for sure. I don’t know whether this is really the right way to do this, but in the end, the guy with both belts should have the say. He chose me, because I won the G1, and because I did it back to back as well. 

–When we spoke to Kazuchika Okada he talked about the importance of bringing the heat, and situations changing your motivations. In your case, you were on the hunt for Naito, then off it, then on again. That’s quite a difficult set of circumstances for you. 

Ibushi: I think Okada was saying that in the context of, if you have that fire behind you, it’s easier to produce results. But Jay’s taking the day off January 4. He’s facing the winner of me and Naito, and I guarantee you that whoever wins on the fourth will have more fire going into the fifth. 

–That’s a good point.

Ibushi: However fired up Jay thinks he might be, I think it’s a lock whoever wins on the fourth will win on the fifth.

Nothing fazes Jay White

–Jay White is a master manipulator, he’s very good at controlling situations, and he can turn people’s momentum against them in an instant. What’s your take on him as a wrestler?

Ibushi: He’s very good. And he’s very strong hearted. It’s rare for someone at that stage of his career to be so string willed, so strong in their convictions. To take the attitude that he has, with such a huge stage in front of him, that’s pretty amazing. It takes something special, I think. I mean, to do what he’s done, after, what, seven, eight years in the business? It’s incredible. 

–There’s no questioning his guts, to be sure.

Ibushi: Nothing fazes him, he can face anyone, anywhere.

–Is he a difficult opponent for you? Hard to bring about your kind of match?

Ibushi: He just takes everything you have in, and you know he can counter absolutely anything in an instant. You start to feel, ‘this is it!’ and get ready to deal that finishing blow, and he’ll turn it all around in an instant. It’s so hard to hit your finish on him, so hard to hit any big move on him. After all, he might have cheated to beat me, but he did it with an incredible roll-up counter to the Kamigoye.

–Power Struggle was your third loss to him this year. 

Ibushi: You’re right. I can’t afford to lose to him again.

–Especially not if you’re walking in with both the belts. To be a one day king is not in your plans.

Ibushi: Exactly. I think there’s so much I can do with both titles. I’ve said it a lot before, I think the Intercontinental title is for the strongest, and the Heavyweight is for the best. To hold both of those titles, and beat Tetsuya Naito to do it, that makes me hotter than ever. And beating Jay White on top of that? That wipes out that 2020 record, wipes out those three losses. I think I really could become God at that point.

–Do you have that mental image in mind? You holding both those titles?

Ibushi: Not yet. Until I put all I have into January 4, I can’t begin to imagine January 5. Thinking about the fifth, that would mean my focus gets split, that I’d be going 50% into each night, and that isn’t going to get it done. I have to put 100% into night one.

–If it all goes to plan for you, it’s two very difficult matches, two bouts where you need your highest motivation, on the biggest stage that we have.

Ibushi: And not many people get to sample what it feels like to wrestle a Tokyo Dome main event. That’s a big time advantage for Tetsuya Naito, experience wise.

–But this situation could really put you in the spotlight in NJPW.

Ibushi: The stars are aligning, for sure. All that’s left is the result. More than ever, I have to win now. I want to make these two nights the best in my life.